The FCE listening test consists of a total of 30 questions divided up into four separate parts and lasts for about 40 minutes. Each recording is played twice.
For many Spanish people preparing for the First exam, the listening part is the one they hate the most....
and this is usually because they either:
a) think the people on the tapes speak too quickly
b) they can't understand their accents
c) they believe can't listen, read and write at the same time
d) they stop listening when they hear a word they don't understand and get frustrated/nervous/angry
e) experience a cluster fuck of some combination of the above
I know how it feels.
I used to experience the same things when I tried to listen to people talking in Spanish and when they spoke it sometimes felt like a pattern of noises and grunts.
It sucks, however there are things you can do to help you.
How can you improve your listening skills and prepare for the listening exam?
Firstly, by reading this guide 😀 and knowing what you have to do for each part of the exam - it will make it much easier. Some people take the exam and don't even prepare, doing that is a big no no.
Secondly, since you will be hearing a variety of accents and people of different ages speaking, you should have already spent lots of time listening to different extracts and done lots of practice questions with your teacher.
If you've lived abroad or been on a summer English course in somewhere like England, then that's a big help too because you'll be more used to hearing how native English speakers talk.
Make sure that you do spend time carefully reading the questions when you're given time to do so. This will put everything in context for you and help you understand what you need to be listening for.
Take a look at the Cambridge English website for additional information about the test.
If you want to pass, you must also:
1. Buy this exam practice book:
There are six practice tests that you can work through, so it's useful for all parts of the exam anyway. It includes all the audio and CDs so you can do the listening exam yourself and not have to buy any additional materials.
2. Do a good FCE exam preparation course at a good English academy. This is a must before you take the exam.
3. Try to understand why the incorrect answers are wrong when you're practising the questions yourself from the book. By thinking in this way about different questions, it will help improve your exam technique a lot.
4. A little off topic but did I mention I was an extra in Peaky Blinders? Yes, I spent two very cold days in Liverpool freezing my balls off while doing a scene with Cillian Murphy. Anyway, practice listening to different accents in English - a great series for this is Peaky Blinders (on Netflix - did I mention I was in Peaky Blinders? 😉 )
Can you spot me? Let me know down in the comments.
You could watch any series or film you like in English - choosing one you enjoy will make it easier. Perhaps you've never even seen your favourite films or series in English.
5. There is likely to be words that come up in the exam that you don't know the meaning of. So what can you do? Stop listening and cry? No! Carry on listening to the rest of the recording and then think about the word and try to guess the meaning of it based on the context it was used in. You should always do this with reading too.
6. Last but not least, listen to lots of music with the lyrics in front of you. If you're doing this regularly it will help you A LOT and it makes learning a language so much more interesting. Have you tried Lyrics Training? Try it here and it's free 🙂
Other useful advice
The Cambridge FCE listening test is made difficult by the way the questions are asked. You'll sometimes hear a word or phrase mentioned by the speaker and then it will be in one of the options on your paper. DON'T just assume that this is the answer because it probably won't be.
You should first listen to the overall meaning of what the speaker is saying and then decide on the correct option. It's about listening for opinion, attitude, detail and facts.
Don't get too over-confident, you hear each recording twice for a reason and if you're sure you've got the answer right then you should check it the second time you listen.
FCE listening part one
With it being the first part of the exam, this is probably the easiest part on the exam. You'll hear eight recordings with each one being about a different situation and with no connection between them. You must choose one of the three options given. Each question carries one mark.
Part one example questions
Let's look at three typical part one questions and go through the answers.
For question one you would hear this:
It's not for everyone, but I love the physical aspect. I started almost by accident. My uncle took me to an indoor climbing wall and I was hooked. The start of any climb gives me a real buzz. I've never settled for being less than the best at anything I've tried and that's what pushed me to the standard I am now. It doesn't mean I don't think I can still improve. I get a huge sense of achievement when I finish a particularly demanding climb and though other climbers get nervous sometimes, like when there's ice or the weather's bad, that never puts me off!
You hear a young man talking about his hobby of rock climbing.
How does he feel about it?
A - satisfied with his level of expertise. The man says "it doesn't mean I don't think I can still improve", which tells us it cannot be this option.
B - concerned about doing a dangerous sport. "...and though other climbers get nervous sometimes.... that never puts me off!". So it's not option B.
C - proud when he copes with difficult conditions. By process of elimination the answer has to be C and this is confirmed by when he says "I get a huge sense of achievement when I finish a particularly demanding climb".
Easy enough, right? You can see that by having a good working knowledge of similes, such as 'proud' and 'sense of achievement', you're able to answer the question.
Now for the second question, the speaker says:
Attention everybody, this is Sonia Le and I'm events manager for today at sea world centre. If you hurry to zone D you can catch the spectacular riding with dolphins event. The next one's on at five past eleven but don't worry if you miss that because you've got three more chances to see it today. We'll now be feeding the sea lions at two fifteen, that's 45 minutes later than scheduled according to your programs and whatever you do, don't miss the ever popular penguin walkabout. That starts in half an hour. You've never seen anything like it! See you there!
You hear a public announcement at a family theme park.
What does the announcement contain?
A - a change to a timetable. The woman announces that the sea lions will be fed 45 minutes later than scheduled which confirms this answer but as I said, don't get cocky 😉 and confirm it with the other options.
B - details of a new attraction. There's nothing mentioned about any of the events being particularly new.
C - instructions about a location. We don't hear anything about the location of anything so it can't be this one either.
And for question three you hear:
I enjoyed that. It was a bit too business'y for me. I know everything's about profits these days but I still think producing books should be more about creativity than making money. Everything's going the same way whether you like it or not - a friend of mine did a course on book illustration and she said the first lecture was about costs. Anyway this speaker said if we're going into the book trade we should get practice in as many aspects as possible. I agree with that, they need an editor for the sports page on the student newspaper. I tihnk I'll go for it.
You hear two people talking about a course they have attended.
3) What as the topic of the course?
A - book illustration. Book illustration is mentioned and weaker candidates will select this option, however, the woman says that it was a friend of hers who did a course on book illustration, and so it can't be this option.
B - journalism. You might think it could be this one because at the end the woman mentions about the student newspaper needing an editor, however, the man says "if we're going into the book trade" and the book trade and journalism are two different things. Moreover, the woman was referring to what the man said about "getting as much practice in as many aspects as possible".
C - publishing. The man says "I still think producing books should be more about creativity than making money". and "going into the book trade" tells us that the course was about books. So the answer is C.
FCE listening part two
In the second part of the B2 First listening test you're given some text with ten gaps. You must listen to a monologue which is around three minutes long and fill in the gaps with a word or a short phrase (never more than three words). You'll be given one mark for each correct answer.
You'll be given about 45 seconds to read the text before the recording starts.
Part two tests your ability to listen for specific information, stated opinion and detail.
Here is an example text
Listening exam top tip!
Never leave a question blank! Just like with the reading and use of English paper, you don't lose marks for incorrect answers so you have nothing to lose by guessing if you really don't know the answer!
Let's work through the first three questions of the above recording. You should make some predictions as to what you think might go in the gap - use the context, sentence and words before to help you.
Chris thinks the best place to find a job like he had is the (9) ____________________
Based on the title 'My vacation job in Australia' and the fact that there's an article 'the' before the gap, I would guess the word to be the name of a thing or place .
Here's the transcript:
Hello everyone, my name is Chris Graham and I spent my last vacation working in Australia. The place I was in is a popular tourist spot so there are lots of student jobs advertised in the newspaper, from hotel work to being a tour guide. I saw my job for a bus driver on the internet, and so I applied. I'd recommend you do that too.
The speaker says that he found his job on the internet and that he'd recommend others to do the same. So what's the word we should write here?
And the next one:
Chris is studying (10) _____________________ at university
I worked for a company which tries to help tourists understand what life used to be like before Europeans arrived. A time before clothes, car and electricity. Many of the local people, the aborigines, work for the company. Studying tourism at university wasn't essential to get the job, in fact my subject's history.
We know it's going to be the name of a subject and if we look at the transcript, you would hear that studying tourism wasn't a requirement to get the job and that his subject is in fact history.
So, you can see that the test will try to sort of trick you into thinking it might be tourism, but actually it's history - so watch out for traps like this!
For most of the time he was working for the company, Chris lived in a (11) ______________________ outside of the town.
Chris was often asked to go to a (12)____________________ at the weekend.
If you try to make a prediction about what might go into the gap, you should be able to easily recognise it's going to be a type of accommodation for number 11 - perhaps a hotel/flat or a house? And for number 12, Chris was asked to go to a 'something' at the weekend. Which activities collocate with go? Go to a party, perhaps?
And the transcript:
What I did do is a short training course when I first arrived though, to learn about the local plants and animals. At first I was given a room in a hotel in town, but I found that I felt quite lonely. So I moved into a caravan on the outskirts. Lots of other staff lived on the site and I got to meet lots of the local people there too. Everyone was really friendly and as there wasn't a cinema or restaurant nearby, people frequently had a party on Saturday nights and I was always invited. I worked six days a week and I had to get up really early in the morning, when most people....
To be able to follow what the speakers says for this question, you need to know that outskirts is a similar word to 'outside'. Chris says at first he stayed in a hotel but then he moved into a caravan because he felt lonely. Then he talks more about this and about how friendly the people were and that people frequently had a party on Saturday nights, and that he was always invited. So there is your answer for number 11 - party and 12 - Saturday.
Some important things to note
The sentences in the text are written in the order that you hear the recording and there are normally one or two questions for each paragraph or section. Also, what's written on your paper is different from what you hear on the tape, but you must fill in the gaps with the exact word(s) that you hear.
Make sure that you spell the word correctly and that whatever you've written fits grammatically.
B2 first listening exam part three
What do you have to do?
- You'll be be played five short monologues of about 30 seconds each;
- Each one is from a different speaker but about a similar topic;
- There will be eight options for you to choose from and you have to decide which of them matches to the correct speaker. Remember that three of them are false.
Part three tests how well you can listen for gist (the overall meaning of what's said or the main idea); understand people's opinions and attitudes, as well as feelings and details.
It's important to realise that the speakers will talk about the topic but they won't actually use the words on your paper. For example, if the topic was about happiness and the speaker was talking about how helping others makes them feel happy, they might not actually use these words but say that doing charity work or volunteering make them feel good.
Read the question carefully because it tells you two important things:
- What the topic of each speaker will be about;
- what you have to listen for.
So from the example question above we can see that the topic is about happiness and you need to listen for what happiness means to each of the speakers.
Now that we know the topic and what we need to listen for, read each option and underline keywords and think of some synonyms and paraphrases for these - the speakers are unlikely to use the words in the options but they will mention something similar or related to the words which are there.
You might underline the following words:
So we have:
A) being able to cope effectively with problems - synonyms and related phrases might be: deal with problems or not letting things get you down
B) having someone special to share your thoughts with - this might about a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife etc
C) happiness is all about the experience of overcoming problems - working through issues; getting over hurdles;
D) short escape from daily routine - monotony; escape reality;
E) true happiness lies in making others happy - doing things for others; boyfriend or girlfriend etc; charity; helping people
F) Older people are less happy than younger ones - loneliness; age
G) happiness is being thankful for what you have - being happy with what you have; appreciating what you've got; not comparing yourself to others
H) happiness comes from achieving your goals - job satisfaction; milestones;
Listening part three top tips!
1. You get to listen twice to each speaker so even if you think you have the right answer, don't get cocky and just start doodling on your paper. Listen to the speaker all the way thorough and again the second time its played, then check it.
2. Use the time you have before the tape plays to read the options and underline keywords so that you can think of related words or phrases that you might hear.
We'll now look at the what the first speaker says from the example question above.
What is happiness, from an early age happiness for me is sitting in a boat in the middle of a lake on a summer's day and doing some serious fishing. All alone, just me and my thoughts. No stress, get away from it all for an hour or so. But maybe not completely aimless. Not just lying on a beach somewhere, but having some task to do. Then when it's all over it's back to normal life and problems and hassle and having to fight to get what you want, but that brief moment of happiness helps me to reflect and make sense of my life.
Here are the options again:
A) Having a happy personality allows you to cope effectively with problems.
B) Happiness comes from having someone special to share your thoughts with.
C) Happiness is all about the experience of overcoming problems.
D) Happiness is a short escape from daily routine.
E) True happiness lies in making others happy.
F) Older people are less happy than younger ones.
G) Happiness is being thankful for what you have.
H) Happiness comes from achieving your goals.
Once you've listened to the WHOLE recording, like with lots of parts in the B2 exam, you can start to eliminate the obvious choices.
So, with A, we don't hear the speaker mention anything about having a happy personality and we can also eliminate options B and E because he says that he goes out fishing 'all alone' and doesn't talk about other people. We can also rule out option F because he doesn't say anything about older or younger people.
Which leaves us with options C, D, G and H.
With option C, he does say the word 'problems' but he mentions it to contrast how he feels when he's not out fishing alone - so don't fall into the trap and just assume it's C because he says 'problems'.
For option G, he doesn't talk about being thankful in any sort of way so we can also eliminate this. Also he doesn't mention anything about achieving goals or objectives so it can't be this. Finally we're left with D and it has to be this because he says 'getting away from it all' and then at the end it's 'back to normal life'.
Listening part four
In the final part of the listening test (hurray!), you'll listen to a conversation or interview that lasts for about three minutes. You must answer seven multiple choice questions.
Like with the other parts you'll hear it twice but this question is similar to part two in the sense that the recording won't stop for the whole three minutes - so you need to be listening carefully to what's being said and then decide on what the meaning of the speaker's points are.
Part four top tips!
1. There's a lot of questions to read in part four, so as soon as part three finishes, turn to part four and start reading it and underlining - if you've read this guide then you already know what you need to do so you don't need to listen to the instructions.
2. Be suspicious of hearing the same words on the tape as what's written on your question paper
3.Don't just choose the answer that agrees with your opinion. Try to GUESS what you think the answer might be while you're reading and then listen to what the speaker says. Don't let your own opinions interfere when you're choosing your answer.
Read the introduction to the task to find out what the speakers will be talking about. You're given one minute to look at each question - so again here you should highlight keywords and phrases and try to guess what you think the answer might be and eliminate any you think are probably not the answer.
The first time you listen, try to answer all of them and if you're unsure, don't waste time dwelling on it because you might miss the part of the recording for the next question. Then the second time you listen, check each answer and listen again carefully for any you didn't get.
Each question is asked in the order that the recording plays - so for example the answer to the first question will be somewhere in the first few sentences, the second one a few more sentences after that and so on until you get near the end where you'll hear the answer to the last question.
Wrapping it all up
I hope that you found this guide useful, informative and entertaining! Getting better at listening is something that comes with a lot of practice and patience, so use the resources mentioned at the beginning and try to practice listening to spoken English on a daily basis. Eventually, you will get there and be really glad you put in the work.
If you don't have any coursebooks or you're not doing a course, getting the books listed above and doing the practice questions is absolutely essential if you want to reach the required standard.